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The Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The federal government remains committed to phasing out open-net fish farms in British Columbia by 2025, says new Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray.

“That position was laid out in our 2019 election platform… that we are committing to transitioning away from open net-pen salmon farming in B.C. by 2025,” Ms. Murray said in an interview in early December.

Ms. Murray, a long-time Liberal MP known for her interest in environmental issues, was named Fisheries Minister in October after the former minister, Nova Scotia MP Bernadette Jordan, lost her seat in the October federal election. Ms. Murray’s appointment comes as some West Coast wild salmon species are teetering on the edge of extinction and the impacts of November storms on fish and habitat are just beginning to be tallied.

Ms. Murray said her priorities as minister will include following through on strategies begun under Ms. Jordan’s tenure, including dealing with the controversial issue of fish farms.

Open-net farms are cage-like structures suspended in the ocean, and they make up a sizable industry in B.C. Farmed Atlantic salmon is B.C.’s top agriculture, seafood, food and beverage export, accounting for $562-million in sales and 12 per cent of the total in 2019, according to a provincial government report. The BC Salmon Farmers Association pegged the economic impact of the industry at $1.6-billion in that year.

But fish farms are controversial because of the risks they pose to wild salmon, including parasitic sea lice that can glom on to young fish as they make their way to the ocean from the lakes and streams where they were born.

As wild salmon stocks declined over the past couple of decades, researchers, environmental groups and some First Nations called on the federal government to get fish farms out of coastal waters. In 2012, the Cohen Commission into declining Fraser River sockeye runs recommended that fish farms in the Discovery Islands be shut down by Sept. 30, 2020, unless the fisheries minister was satisfied that they posed “at most a minimal risk of serious harm” to migrating Fraser River sockeye.

The Discovery Islands are a group of islands between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland that sit along a migratory route for wild salmon and have been a favoured spot for open-net salmon farming operations.

In September, 2020, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced that its review of nine Discovery Islands pathogens had determined they posed minimal risk to migrating fish. (Critics disputed those results.) Then, in December, 2020, Ms. Jordan announced that Discovery Islands salmon farming licences would be phased out, following consultation with First Nations in the region.

That decision, along with previous statements by the federal Liberal government, raised hopes among critics of fish farms that open-net pens would no longer operate in B.C.

The party’s 2019 election platform said a Liberal government would “work with the province to develop a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal waters to closed containment systems by 2025.”

Ms. Jordan’s December, 2019, mandate letter said she would work with the province and Indigenous communities to come up with a transition plan by 2025, but didn’t mention closed containment systems.

As of last week, mandate letters for new cabinet ministers had not been released.

Several aquaculture companies have filed applications for new sites or expanded operations, raising the possibility the industry will simply shift locations.

Ms. Murray said she could not comment on any specific applications, but said she expects to work toward phasing out open-net operations.

Asked what her priorities will be, she cited the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative, a $647.1-million plan Ms. Jordan announced this past June. In announcing the plan, DFO said many Pacific salmon stocks are declining to historic lows.

The department described the plan as having four “pillars”: conservation and stewardship, enhanced hatchery production, harvest transformation and integrated management and collaboration.

Later that same month, Ms. Jordan announced closures to about 60 per cent of commercial salmon fisheries in B.C. and a licence buyout program, saying the measures were necessary to protect wild salmon. Critics balked, saying years of increasingly stringent fishing closures had not improved the outlook for wild salmon, and they called for more government investment in measures such as habitat protection.

Ms. Murray, who co-founded a tree-planting company in the 1970s, is attuned to those calls.

“Without habitat, and a healthy habitat, you don’t have healthy salmon runs. And I’m particularly interested in regenerating habitat that also has the extra benefit of being a means of carbon absorption… and that’s important for the broader purpose of Canada to achieve our climate targets,” she said.

DFO has begun to assess how last month’s storms may have affected wild salmon, including those that recently spawned in areas affected by floods and mudslides, Ms. Murray said.

As federal, provincial and local governments begin to think of rebuilding dikes and other infrastructure, they should consider fish-friendly options, says Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, a conservation group.

The group’s research indicates that outdated dike designs block some 1,500 kilometres of salmon habitat in the Lower Fraser region. Pump stations can be death traps for fish, chewing them up with almost no chance of escape, but there are models designed to give fish a better chance of passing through, Mr. Hill said.

Watershed Watch cited several examples of fish-friendly infrastructure, including an updated floodgate on the Lower Agassiz Slough, in the Fraser Valley, that will open an additional seven hectares of habitat by allowing fish to get past the barrier.

“If the federal government is spending $647-million dollars on salmon [protection] and then they turn around and spend billions of dollars on flood control that destroys salmon habitat – then they will have squandered all of it,” he said.

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